Common Eating Disorders Among Young Adults
Not so long ago, the struggles faced by someone with an eating disorder went largely unnoticed. Many people in society, including some within the medical and mental health communities, viewed eating disorders as a choice or a voluntary ailment. It was not until relatively recently that research proved eating disorders were dangerous mental health conditions that led to significant harm to millions of people of all ages each year.
Although stigma and misconceptions still surround eating disorder diagnoses and experiences, more and more public figures continue to come forward to share their challenges. This has helped a more significant segment of society learn more about eating disorders and their frequency in the United States. It has also led many to wonder how common eating disorders are and which eating disorders are the most common.
Recent data from the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that approximately thirty million Americans from all demographics (age, race, religion, economic standing, etc.) suffer from an eating disorder. Worldwide that number is more than double. As shocking as this number is, it is likely far lower than the “true” number. A significant challenge associated with eating disorder research is that many sufferers do not come forward and speak to a medical provider about their symptoms.
As a result, many people who struggle each day with the symptoms associated with an eating disorder never receive a diagnosis or proper treatment. This happens for a variety of reasons. Some people who struggle with an eating disorder feel embarrassed, and others experience denial or even confusion about what their symptoms indicate.
Eating disorders can vary vastly in the expression of symptoms and behaviors, which means fitting someone neatly into a specific eating disorder classification can be difficult. As a result, people often struggle for an extended period to obtain a diagnosis and be able to seek treatment. This can be discouraging, and people struggling to manage eating disorder symptoms often give up on finding help.
What Does it Mean to Have an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses characterized by abnormal and harmful eating behaviors. Eating disorders’ physical and psychological effects do not stop at weight loss or gain. They can have a significant and detrimental impact on mental, physical, and psychological health. More than ten thousand Americans lose their lives to complications directly related to an eating disorder annually. Additionally, as many as five percent of those who struggle with an untreated eating disorder will attempt suicide.
There is no one “cause” of eating disorders. Researchers believe genetic, social, cultural, and environmental factors contribute to the development of harmful eating patterns that contribute to an eating disorder diagnosis. Like drugs or alcohol for someone with a substance use disorder, someone who struggles with an eating disorder manipulates food intake to manage stress and feel a sense of control over their environment.
What are the Most Common Eating Disorders?
Several eating disorder diagnoses are listed in the current edition of the Diagnostic Manual for Mental Disorders. The most common include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Someone with anorexia nervosa struggles with the “need” to remain thin. Typical symptoms experienced with anorexia nervosa include low body weight, low blood pressure, dehydration, anxiety, altered eating habits, and a mismatched body weight perception. In the absence of treatment, anorexia nervosa will inevitably have a severe and dangerous effect on one’s physical and emotional health.
Statistically, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders. Some research studies suggest that anorexia nervosa may contribute to the most significant number of fatalities for any mental illness. Several recent studies indicate that approximately 4% of women will have anorexia nervosa during their lifetime. While an anorexia nervosa diagnosis can occur at any time, the average symptom onset is in one’s early teens, generally in conjunction with the start of puberty.
It is also important to note another significant danger associated with anorexia nervosa: an increased risk for self-harm and suicidal ideation. In a study conducted in the early 2000s, teens (specifically females) with anorexia nervosa were up to 56% more likely than their peers without anorexia nervosa to attempt or commit suicide. Additionally, they were up to twelve times more likely to experience fatal complications linked to their diagnosis.
Anorexia is characterized by severely restricted food intake. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, include instances of binging and purging. Someone with bulimia nervosa will binge on food and then forcibly purge the food from their body. Purging is often accomplished by laxative use or (more commonly) self-induced vomiting. Other symptoms someone with bulimia nervosa may exhibit include anxiety, bad breath, weight changes, food aversions, hunger, and problems with dental hygiene.
Bulimia is believed to affect as many as three percent of women and less than one percent of men. It is almost nine times more likely to occur in women than men and has a mortality rate of around four percent.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is frequently confused with bulimia nervosa, but they are two distinct illnesses. Someone with a binge eating disorder will consume excessive amounts of food within a short time (usually a few hours or less). But, unlike bulimia nervosa, someone with a binge eating disorder will not purge after food is consumed. For someone to meet the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder, excessive food intake must occur at least once per week for three months to receive a formal diagnosis.
Statistically, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Researchers believe it affects up to 5% of women and approximately 2% of men; however, the statistic for males is likely far higher as many men do not seek treatment to address disordered eating. For individuals seeking weight loss treatments (such as surgical interventions), binge eating disorder is the most common form of disordered eating seen by medical professionals. In this case, it affects as many as 40% of individuals.
Pica is an eating disorder that is not as commonly known as the first three. Pica is an eating disorder that involves eating things that are not widely thought of as food items and do not contain a specific nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, paper, and paint chips. The signs and symptoms of Pica are a little different than some of the more common eating disorders. Pica often occurs in conjunction with other mental health disorders associated with impaired functioning. Additionally, malnutrition and iron deficiency anemia are two of the most common causes of Pica.
Pica is not restricted to a specific age group. A Pica diagnosis can occur in people of all ages; however, it is most commonly seen in children and pregnant women. Depending on the substances ingested, Pica can be dangerous and, in some cases, fatal. For someone to be diagnosed with Pica, they must be older than 24 months of age, and their behavior must be social and culturally abnormal.
Pica is not as widely studied as other eating disorders. Some studies suggest it is prevalent in the United States. Research indicates that up to 19% of children over two years of age have Pica. Of those, 10% of children older than age twelve meet diagnostic criteria, as do 50% of children between 18 and 36 months. It is also present in 4% of adult men and women and between 30% and 70% of pregnant women.
Get Eating Disorder Help at The Meadowglade
Eating disorder treatment can take place in several different settings ranging from minimally to significantly intensive, depending on the needs of the individual. Most treatment plans involve a combination of psychological therapy (psychotherapy), nutrition education, medical monitoring, and sometimes medications. The duration of involvement or the amount of each will depend on the specific disorder and the individual’s personal needs.
An outpatient setting may be the most beneficial for patients who are medically stable and do not need daily medical monitoring. For this type of care to work, the individual must be psychiatrically stable and have their symptoms under sufficient control to function outside of a residential treatment program. In other cases, inpatient or residential treatment is the preferred environment for care.
Inpatient and residential programs are notably the most intensive treatment option available. These programs are designed for those whose symptoms are so pervasive and overwhelming that they may not safely respond to outpatient or partial hospitalization treatment. Inpatient treatment is also preferred for someone who needs medical intervention to achieve physical stability before beginning a therapeutic treatment program. When participating in residential treatment at The Meadowglade, you are removed from various triggers and situations that can create compulsive eating (or starvation-related) behaviors. Our team of medical and mental health providers will provide emotional, medical, and nutritional support as you work towards recovery.
Psychological therapy is one of the most critical components of eating disorder treatment. The therapeutic process can last for varying periods ranging from a few months to a few years again, depending on the person’s needs. Therapy will often include various approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, family-based therapies, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and psychodynamic therapy, among others. Each of these approaches provides a different level of support and different emotional well-being goals for the individual, ensuring that they have the proper level of support both during treatment and after they return home.
At The Meadowglade, we understand that living with an eating disorder can lead to complex emotional and physical challenges. Many eating disorders can lead to dangerous medical and mental health challenges that must be addressed in a safe and supported environment. Learning how to overcome the triggers that lead to harmful eating habits is an integral part of the therapeutic journey. Eating disorders do not resolve on their own. Let us help you find freedom from your eating disorder. Contact us today to learn more about treatment options at The Meadowglade.